In India the Enemies of Free Speech Find a "Symbolic" Means to Attack Cartoonist Aseem Trivedi


Photograph courtesy of Aseem Trivedi

On January 11, 2012, CRNI interviewed Indian cartoonist Aseem Trivedi.  At that time Aseem’s website, Cartoons Against Corruption, had recently been suspended after a lawyer, Rajendra Pratap Pandey, made a complaint to the Mumbai Police, which the Mumbai Police passed on to the website’s domain name registrar, Indian based company Big Rock.  In the complaint Mr. Pandey objected to some of Aseem’s anti-corruption cartoons which were featured on the website.  Mr. Pandey also objected to these cartoons being displayed as posters at a peaceful protest led by anti-corruption activist Anna Hazare.  In an interview titled Cartoonist Faces Ban on Right to Poke Fun with India Real Time, Mr. Pandey made the claim that Mr. Trivedi has the right to ridicule individual politicians but that he does not have the right to ridicule the Indian Parliament, the national emblem or the national flag.  Since our interview and after he posted his anti-corruption cartoons on a new website, Aseem was charged with treason and insulting the national emblem in the Beed District Court in Maharashtra.  The Cartoonists Rights Network International urges the authorities in the world’s largest democracy to stand up for free speech and put an end to all the attempts to silence Aseem’s political speech.  Dr. Robert Russell, Executive Director of CRNI, commented, "Aseem’s enemies either don’t know how to interpret symbols in editorial cartoons or are knowingly twisting the law to silence dissent in order to shield corrupt officials."

Photograph of protest featuring Aseem Trivedi's artwork courtesy of Aseem Trivedi

Aseem is accused of violating The State Emblem of India Act of 2005.  Under the Act, the national emblem cannot be used for “any trade, business, calling or profession or in the title of any patent, or in any trade mark or design” without the permission of the government.  Each violation is punishable with a fine or up to two years of prison.  Attorney Pandey, it should be noted, has conveniently left out that the State Emblem Act also states, "Notwithstanding anything contained in any other law for the time being in force, no person shall use the emblem or any colourable imitation thereof in any manner which tends to create an impression that it relates to the Government or that it is an official document of the Central Government, or as the case may be, the State Government, without the previous permission of the Central Government or of such officer of that Government as may be authorised by it in this behalf."

Prosecuting Aseem under The State Emblem Act would set a dangerous precedent.   Aseem’s cartoons are clearly not an attempt to co-opt national symbols for a commercial venture.  Furthermore, no one, Indian or otherwise, would confuse Aseem’s cartoons with the actual symbols of the state.  In the language of the law, they do not tend to create an impression that they relate to the Government or that they are official documents of the Government.  We all recognize Aseem’s cartoons for what they are – stinging indictments of the pervasive corruption in the corridors of India’s Parliament.  And that’s political speech worthy of a great democracy’s protection.

Cartoon titled Next! by Joseph Keppler, Jr., first appeared in Puck magazine on September 7, 1904

In the American democracy there is a long tradition of editorial cartoonists employing symbols of the state to make powerful statements about our elected officials.  In 1904 Joseph Keppler, Jr. warned the nation of Standard Oil’s pervasive influence in American corridors of power.  Keppler depicted the enormously wealthy oil company as an octopus with its tentacles grabbing, among other things, a state house and the United States Capitol.  In 1949 Herb Block, aka Herblock, warned the nation of the danger of overreaction by our elected officials and by average Americans to the threat of home grown communism.   Though some Americans disagreed with the point made in Keppler’s cartoon and while others disagreed with the point made in Herblock’s cartoon, Keppler and Herblock never faced charges of treason for employing the images of the Capitol and the Statue of Liberty.  Even many Americans who disagreed with Keppler and Herblock recognized the patriotic impulse of these artists (even if they thought the impulse was misguided).  By pointing out India’s failings with cartoon symbols of the state, Aseem is likewise trying to create a more perfect union for his country.

Cartoon titled Fire!, courtesy of The Herb Block Foundation first appeared in the Washington Post on June 17, 1949

Below is the January 11, 2012 telephone interview of Aseem by CRNI Deputy Director Drew Rougier-Chapman.  Aseem has recently given us permission to make this interview public.  He also asked us to publicize his new campaign to protect the free speech rights of internet users in India called Save Your Voice.              

Drew – This is Drew Rougier-Chapman and Dr. Bro Russell with the Cartoonists Rights Network International speaking with Indian freelance cartoonist Aseem Trivedi.  In late December of last year, 2011, the domain name registrar of Aseem’s website, Cartoonists Against Corruption, suspended that site after being contacted by the Mumbai Police.  The Police were responding to a complaint filed by attorney Reajendra Pratap Pandey who found the cartoons objectionable and claims at least one of the cartoons violates The State Emblem of India Act which prohibits the use of India’s national emblem for any trade or business without the government’s express permission.  Aseem, thank you for speaking with us today. 

Aseem – Thank you.  It was the 27th of December, 2011. 

Drew – When and how did you learn of your website suspension?

Aseem – That was the 28th in the morning at 1 o’clock or around 1 o’clock when my friends called me to tell me that my website was not working.  I checked it.  I came out from the [Anna] Hazare [anti-corruption] Movement.  I am an active member of that movement.  … I checked my email.  … I had an email which was telling [me] that Mumbia Police Crime Branch has found my website and my cartoons objectionable.  In the evening I wrote an email to them and I talked to them on the phone.  They told me that they can’t suspend the suspension, they can’t revoke my suspension.  I told that to my friends and they contacted Crime Branch.  But the ban on my website could not be revoked. 

Drew – So a complaint by a private citizen to the police which in turn was relayed to your domain provider Big Rock , and not a court order, shut down your website?  Is that correct?

Aseem – Yes. 

Drew – Has a court case been initiated against you?

Aseem – I have friends in the media who are telling me that charges will be brought against me any day now.

Drew – Have you initiated a counter suit?

Aseem – No.  I could not because I couldn’t find any attorney who could come and help me.  Many of my friends are trying to find an attorney.  … The case is in [the state of] Maharashtra.    I’ll have to go there to find an attorney.  Then I’ll be able to fight this case.  I can’t go there now.  It is dangerous for me because it is the time of elections.  I will have to wait. …

Drew – Why are you concerned for your safety?

Aseem – Because Maharashtra’s politics are complicated.  And I am just an unknown cartoonist.  … I am looking for an advocate that can protect me and my rights. 

Drew – In many countries it has of course been a long tradition for political cartoonists to use symbols, especially symbols of the state like the country’s flag, to make political statements.  Aseem describe for us the cartoon in which you created your own twist on India’s national emblem to make a point about corruption in your country. 

Aseem – Below the [Indian] emblem is the saying ‘Satyameva Jayate.’  That means ‘the truth is always winning.’  So, what I said is ‘Bhrashtamev Jayate.’  That means ‘Only corrupted people are winning.’  And I made it three wolves because now in India only the top corrupt people have 70% of the whole wealth of India.  The rest of the people are living on a dollar a day, or half a dollar a day.  My point is that India is getting so corrupt that the truth is not winning.  … I am not copying the emblem.                                          

Cartoon courtesy of Aseem Trivedi

Drew – Can you tell our readers why it is important to have symbols, even symbols of the state, available for your work?  That is to say, as some of your critics have said, “Why can’t you simply use caricatures and caricature each and every politician you suspect of corruption?” 

Aseem – I would have to draw a man and then another man and then another man.  … The point is that I didn’t copy anything.  They used the line ‘The truth is winning” and I said ‘Corruption is winning.’  … They are accusing me because they want to get political mileage and nothing else.  

Drew – You have another very opinionated cartoon depicting the Parliament as a toilet.  What was your message in that cartoon? 

Cartoon courtesy of Aseem Trivedi

Aseem – My point is that I don’t say this is the Parliament.  I say if corruption [continues] like this, this is going to become the Parliament.  If the people sent to Parliament, the parliamentarians, are having criminal records and charges, it simply means that they are making Parliament a toilet.  The same day the MP raised the issue in the Parliament about my cartoons, within half an hour, another MP turned away a copy of a[n anti-corruption] bill. … I ask, “Am I making Parliament a toilet?!”  … They [the parliamentarians] are destroying the image of India.     

Drew – Mr. Pendey was quoted in a Wall Street Journal blog as saying that cartoon is unacceptable and undemocratic.  How do you respond to that accusation?

Aseem – I am democratic.  I am patriotic.  I have a twenty-four year life without any charges of corruption.  I am only making cartoons.  … I am talking about nationalism.  I love my country.  I am reacting [to the corruption] in my own way.  Someone is protesting.  Somebody is doing hunger strike in India.  [As for me,] I am a cartoonist. 

Drew – Aseem, your most controversial cartoon is very similar to a series of cartoons by a famous South African cartoonist, Zapiro.  His cartoons you can see on our website in the [Sub-Saharan Africa subsection of the] Art To Die For section of our website.  In Zapiro’s cartoons corrupt officials are depicted as about to rape Lady Justice.  Zapiro says the abuse of the justice system is what is offensive, not his cartoons.  What was your cartoon and what was the rebuke that you were making? 

Cartoon courtesy of Aseem Trivedi

Aseem – My point was that I don’t believe in India as a Father India or a Mother India.  I think of our national personality in the same way as our first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru.  He once said something like, “All the citizens are India.  India is not a Mother India.”  Everyone is Mother India.  So if you come to my place in Kanpur, you will still find people sleeping outside.  They don’t have homes.  They have been beaten.  They have been threatened.  They have been raped. … According to Jawaharlal Nehru then they have been taken advantage of by these corrupt people, these criminals.  … Every Indian is Mother India.  My cartoons are reflecting the same thing.   

Drew – India like South Africa is a democracy.  And yet like South Africa, your country is not immune to attacks on free speech, from attacks to your cartoons to attacks to your colleague Mussaveer to attacks on access to Google and Facebook and attacks on the content of films.  What is happening to freedom of speech in India today? 

Aseem – South Africa and India are similar in one more thing.  Gandhi was in South Africa.  Then he became Gandhi. …   Freedom of expression in India is not that okay.  There are limits.  We have rights, legal rights.  But we are not that open-minded [in India].  … The court can say “Give him two years punishment” and I can accept that.  I will accept that.  But that is not the only cost in India.  I will not be able to go to court first.  I will have to face the public court.  And that is where the problem starts.  The public might throw stones at me.  They might beat my father and mother.  Or they will beat me.  Indians have better rights.  But it is like they have spoons but have to eat their food with their hands.  They have democracy, the largest democracy, but they are not that open-minded or educated.  They don’t think in that matter.  Like, I’m a cartoonist and if I am making something found to be wrong, a court is there to punish me.  They don’t think like that.  I am sorry to say this about my country.  But we lack a little civilization.  And yet we were the first civilization. 

Drew – Your cartoons are still available on your blog and on Facebook.  Are you concerned that access to your cartoons will be shut down entirely?

Aseem – I am hopeful that they will not be able to ban my blog easily because blogs are operated from the United States.  One incident happened in 2005 or 2006, I think, for one day India banned the whole bloggerspot.com.  Then the US Embassy called the Indian Embassy and there was a big issue at that time.  But that has never happened again.  So I am hopeful that bloggerspot.com will not be banned very easily.  They are threatening me.  But that doesn’t mean that I will stop my work.  I’ll publish it on another platform.  If the court says, “Stop” I will accept.  But if terrorists say I should stop, I will not stop.  

Drew – Do you believe your cartoons actually violated the State Emblem of India Act or do you believe the law needs to be changed?  

Aseem – I never believed that my work violated the law.  That is why I am sure [I will win in court]. … I am as patriotic as these so-called patriots [attacking me].  No, more patriotic.

Drew – We agree.  Good luck and thank you. 

Aseem – Thank you.